Cultural Divergence After the Crash: Thoughts on The Only Life We Know


Regular readers of How to Save the World know that I have been struggling for a couple of years with my novel The Only Life We Know. The novel takes place at the dawn of the 23rd century, a hundred years after a combination of events have conspired to cause our civilization to crash. The human population has reached a stasis level of a few hundred million people after a precipitous collapse. Attempts by the survivors to immediately recreate civilization culture failed for a whole series of reasons revealed through the stories in the novel.

The successive generations, unfamiliar with what pre-crash civilization was about (other from what they can glean from books and digital recordings), are therefore indifferent to it, and therefore go about creating a set of completely new cultures. These new cultures are based on the physical place of the community (so the desert culture in the book is very different from the oceanside culture, and each is appropriate to its place), and based on studying the cultures of wild animal communities native to those places. The young people use animal cultures as their model because they are only models they can see that actually work. They rebel against and ultimately ignore the pleas of the ‘older generation’ of humans, who remember what civilization was, and want the young people to learn from civilization’s lessons and rebuild it. The only thing that the young people can see to learn from in their study of civilization is that it failed, horribly.

One of the theses of the novel is that while there is much we can learn from information media, we can’t really know what it’s like to live in another culture unless we experience it physically. While the immediate survivors of civilization’s collapse struggle to recreate the only life they know, the generations that follow have no tie to, or real appreciation of, such a ‘civilization’ culture, because they have no first-hand experience of it. Some technologies have survived, including books, and hand-crank operated ‘electronic’ information tools, but with the end of oil, the collapse of the energy grid, and the subsequent collapse of social, economic, business, educational and political infrastructure, most of these tools are abandoned, not because they can’t be made to work, but because they no longer ‘make sense’ in the context of a new world with no apparent use or need for them.

So these new generations of humans, using nature as their model, and salvaging whatever tools and information they find intuitively useful from the era of civilization, go about crafting, from the bottom up (there is no ‘top down’ any more), bold new human communities that work for them. Because these communities are far-flung, remote from other communities, and of necessity self-sufficient and tied to the ecology of their physical location, the cultures of these communities end up diverging wildly, and appear to the observer (and the reader) as different from each other as Incan culture was from Inuit culture. This divergence occurs despite the fact there is some cultural exchange and trade, and substantial information exchange between the cultures. A single ‘common’ language evolves, learned by everyone but secondary to each culture’s ‘native’ language, and a basic ‘natural community model’, illustrated above, also emerges, although it manifests itself in very different ways.

This natural community model reflects the fact that, to survive and be good citizens of our communities, we all need to acquire and practice certain indigenous capacities (listed on the right side of the chart) that minimize conflict, enable collaboration and demonstrate respect for others and for Gaia, of which we are (finally and again) an integral part. In addition to these capacities, we also, each individually, find that our strengths and our passions tend to be focused in one or more of the nine competency areas shown in the diamonds on the chart. Deciding how, and who to make a living with, is a matter of assessing how your strengths and passions in these areas dovetail with those of others, and how they collectively provide something of value to the community. Regular readers will recognize this as the ‘sweet spot’ at the intersection of your Gift, your Passion and your Purpose, that I’ve written about often recently, and will recognize the result of finding and working together with those whose collective Gifts and Passions meet a shared Purpose as the model for what I have called The Natural Enterprise.

Here’s a quick overview of the nine competency areas I’ve depicted above, and how they work together (I’ll have more to say about this in a future Natural Enterprise article):

  1. Explorers: Scientists, researchers, anthropologists. People whose work is to study, observe, perceive and learn. Their work-product is discovery.
  2. Interpreters: Teachers, philosophers, story-tellers, activists. People whose work is to teach, coach, provoke, ‘make sense’ of things, add insight to information. Their work-product is understanding.
  3. Inventors: Innovators, writers. People whose work is to imagine, conceive, make stuff up, figure out how stuff might be applied. Their work-product is ideas.
  4. Designers: Chefs, jewelers, architects. People whose work is to craft, specify, template, make patterns and recipes. Their work-product is models.
  5. Generators: Artists, producers, manufacturers. People whose work is to make useful or enjoyable physical stuff. Their work-product is ‘goods’.
  6. Nurturers: Gardeners, guardians, nutritionists, preventative health practitioners. People whose work is to cultivate and help people (and Gaia) do what they do best. Their work-product is well-being.
  7. Menders: Doctors, nurses, servicers, repairers, renovators. People whose work is to restore what is damaged. Their work-product is sustenance.
  8. Actors: Athletes, entertainers. People whose work is to stimulate, ‘recreate’ and refresh. Their work-product is fun.
  9. Connectors: Distributors, travelers, nomads. People whose work is to distribute or redistribute stuff — ‘goods’, information, or ideas. Their work-product is communication. They are the principal physical link between communities.

The first seven competency areas flow, sort of, one to the next. Discoveries are interpreted to produce understanding, which provokes ideas, which are designed into models, which are produced as ‘goods’, which provide well-being, which is sustained by menders.

Young people in these communities are encouraged to try their hand at all of these things, to learn what their real strengths and passions are. They are also encouraged to be Nomads — to travel to and live among other communities in order to find the people they love and would love to make a living with, and to act as Connectors in that capacity.

This model is just an emergent shared framework of community roles, not a taxonomy of roles that, once chosen, defines your position in the community for life. It’s a personal navigation tool, not a pigeon-holing structure. It’s implicit in the way the communities depicted in the book operate, but is not explicit.

The novel is told in the ‘voice’ of a young Nomad recounting her experiences in twelve different communities (the book’s twelve chapters). But she changes her ‘voice’ to reflect the utterly different cultures of these communities as she becomes immersed in and part of each. So the novel is actually a collection of twelve short stories.

The novel aspires to do three things:

  1.  First, it portrays the future as a utopia, not a dystopia, both to give people hope that, when civilization does collapse, the life that comes after will not be short, nasty and brutish, but actually quite wonderful, and to explain how and why it will be this way.
  2. Secondly, it attempts to entertain and stimulate the imagination by telling credible and interesting stories, one per chapter, set in very different 23rd century communities, each community wildly divergent from the last. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of imagination, perhaps more than I or anyone is capable of. Each story, in addition to describing a different way to live, will also reveal something fundamental about the human condition and human nature, and will hopefully be fun (and provocative) to read as well.
  3. Thirdly, the novel as a whole will be a mystery novel, as it reveals through the stories clues as to how and why the crash of civilization occurred and how and why certain surprising events followed the crash. Not just a whodunit with the Earth and modern society as the murder victims, but a mystery about human resilience, the astonishing power of human imagination, and what happens when we do what we must.

At this point I’m not expecting you to ‘buy’ the plot — I haven’t given you enough here to do that. What I’d like from you, dear reader, are two things:

  • Your thoughts on the Natural Community model. What’s missing? What essential roles of an egalitarian community of, say, 150 people do not fall into any of these categories? What essential roles in a Natural Enterprise of, say 30 people within a Natural Community do not fall into any of these categories? Is there anything ‘unnatural’ about the model? It’s based on my amateur reading of anthropology and biology books and on my own observations of how things seem to work in nature and (when management permits it) in highly effective businesses.
  • Some ideas on characters for the novel. I don’t want heroes. These communities have no need for heroes and not much adversity to overcome. Or perhaps it would be better to say everyone in these communities is in a way a hero. The stories are about relationships, about love, about re-learning to have fun, about sustainability. But they aren’t preachy do-gooder stories. They’re about people discovering what makes sense, and just doing sometimes-crazy stuff that is part of being human. The characters I want are big-as-life, eccentric, charming, in-the-moment, out-on-the-edge people. People who you could not imagine living in this civilization. Don’t worry about their physical appearance — I’ve got that covered (for example, one of my communities has a preponderance of Explorers — scientists — who adorn themselves in face-paint and masksthat react to light, sound, pheromones etc.) I’m looking for personalities. People completely different from anyone else you have ever met, or could imagine. They can be real or made up. They just need to be way out there.

People whose ideas I use will, of course, be acknowledged in the book.

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13 Responses to Cultural Divergence After the Crash: Thoughts on The Only Life We Know

  1. Kevin says:

    While those seem to cover the roles I can think of, the way it is described with the chart sounds too efficient and industrial for me to believe. Don’t forget to add some no-or-low motivation characters who just don’t want to do any of these things… Or I suppose people who would still be candidates for one of the roles you mentioned, but don’t want to “contribute to society” in the form of out-put. Introverted or reclusive people who would rather just sit and read a book or watch a flower, explorers that dont neccessarily want to go to the trouble to share their thoughts or findings with anyone else, or interpreters who understand the implecations of the explorers findings, but are too “lazy” to share. Etc…

  2. Mariella says:

    I missed the contemplative capacity… not as in Kevin´s take (low motivated, introverted or reclusive)but as a natural characteristic of native people : like a meditation, they simply sit and contemplate nature relinking themselves to the whole…. contacting their inner master…. a very important capacity where knowledge is transformed into wisdom. Maybe out of this capacity is also born a healthy relation with death and dying processes.

  3. Dave Smith says:

    Within one or more of the roles, but not a role in itself, need to be bridgers/consensus builders, those who connect within communities, and between communities… those more ego-less wise ones who help sort out and harmonize the inevitable conflicts/disputes between the different groups and communities and their creative work-products.

  4. Alvin says:

    A novel from you would definitely be interesting :)Can’t help you with the different roles, but as an aspiring writer I will definitely recommend Robert McKee’s Story, if you haven’t already read it.It’s as fantastic a guide to writing story and characters as I’ve seen.

  5. Rev Sam says:

    Your categories seem too determinedly secular to me, and therefore unrealistic, especially number 2. I think you need to include a shaman figure (= #2), someone who can feed the religious instincts in all their diversity (and this links in to the points made by Mariella). You might be interested to have a look at Robert Pirsig’s ‘Lila’, which has a fascinating account of a Zuni ‘brujo’ in New Mexico in the nineteenth century, who functioned as a bridge between an old culture that couldn’t continue, and a new culture that was forming. Pirsig’s analysis of what was going on is very stimulating. (The original story comes from Ruth Benedict’s ‘Patterns of Culture’, but I haven’t read the original)

  6. mattbg says:

    You should have some sociopaths in there. In any non-trivial community, you’ll have them, and they’ll do their best to harm society for their own benefit. You can’t exclude them from the community because they won’t be detectable by most.I also agree with “Rev Sam” that you can’t exclude religious leaders. Particularly after some kind of collapse and with all of the lost knowledge, I think a return to religion to account for the unknown would be inevitable.

  7. Mariella says:

    I was wondering about the different attitudes that people belonging to a same group can adopt and modify and affect results: for instance a teacher : can be conservative: fears to do something new, or progresist : invites his pupils to search for alternatives… a survival attitude or a flexible and adaptative attitude….. —————And what about raising kids ¿ Is it a communitary doing ? ¿Birth control?……population regulation…? Will a part of the tribe split (like bees swarming) when overpulated?About the bridgers – in Dave Smiths comments -, (maybe if we had had them, our technologies would have not grown separatedly without considering the side effects of their doings in culture and environment)I feel it is the ecologist interlocking microsystems of any kind: individual, collective or social and environmental. I link this capacity to the contemplative attitude that allows to see beyond the inmediate, maybe to a new style of shaman.

  8. I second mattbg and also think that kevin’s idea will go a long way towards (a) making the novel feel more ‘realistic’ and, most importantly, (b) adding dramatic tension. I understand you’re not giving away all of the plot and I understand your wanting to discuss a utopian rather than dystopian scenario, but you’ve got to have something to struggle against. Yes, that it’s a mystery gives you the unanswered mystery, but don’t be afraid to add obstacles, even if they’re only manufactured in the (or some of the) characters’ own minds.

  9. Mariella says:

    Well, this is fun Dave, this new style non hierarchical bridger Shaman keeps performing magic dances in my mind

  10. ARS says:

    Along the same vein as the shaman idea, I would recommend a trickster character. Someone that just dances to their own drum. The trickster was an important part of early Native American tribes, and I’d recommend checking them out.

  11. Mariella says:

    Trying to invent different personalities… The ones we know today are based on some basic beliefs so, if the youngs in the novel are sure that what was born from modernity did not work, I imagine a rewind to a pre or non modernity approach or view of life. So, one of the characteristics I like more is that of living differences as complementary and not as opposite. Relying in solidarity and not in reciprocity… There is a natural relation with expectation and frustration …there is acceptance as respect, with some kind of disattachment for the “causes” of the other, I was thinking about Don Juan (Castañeda´s) and the warrior attitude…. ¿ What kind of sociopathies could be born out of this basic beliefs?

  12. spy for sanity says:

    i agree with the shaman/monastic comments above.i also wondered about people who are unable to fit into any of the catagories, sick or disabled…how does the society care for its vulnerable ones and does it find a way to utilize them? what about the dabbler…someone whose strength lies in more than one area who needs the variety of a more fluid existance? or would there be fluidity for all, with the ability to shift when the person felt it was appropriate?

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